Women play second fiddle at summer music festivals like Coachella

INDIO, Calif. — Dee Dee Penny, lead singer of the Dum Dum Girls, is no stranger to performing at giant summer musical events. At the first of the two-weekend Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival events last Friday, her retro-rock act played before thousands of ecstatic fans.

She was just one of an eclectic roster of female artists who galvanized Coachella audiences. Teenage provocateur Lorde dazzled amid a howling dust storm in her summer music festival debut. R&B diva Solange got a surprise assist from her superstar sister, Beyoncé Knowles. Alt-torch singer Lana Del Rey turned in a transfixing trip-hop set. And pop-rock sisters Haim were local conquering heroes as they celebrated the success of their 2013 debut, “Days Are Gone,” which embodies the Coachella spirit by contemporizing retro sounds with hipster/hippie chic.

It’s a benchmark year for Coachella. More solo female artists and all-female bands were on the lineup — 16 — than at any other time in the festival’s history.

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Yet that’s just a fraction of the festival’s 166 acts. While the numbers do improve if one includes Coachella’s 19 co-ed acts, which range from celebrator headliners Arcade Fire, dance-pop trio Chvrches and Penny’s Dum Dum Girls, who recently added a male guitarist to its all-girl crew, that still leaves more than 100 male acts to dominate the bill.

“It’s obnoxious when you show up somewhere and you’re like, ‘Cool, I’m one woman here and there are like 900 dudes,’ ” said Penny, who will return for Coachella’s second weekend. “Of course… I don’t know all of the many things that go into who gets to play. I would hope it’s not as obvious as discrimination.”

In an era when Top 40 radio is led by such pop ingénues as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, who similarly rule social media with more than 127 million combined Twitter followers, the independent music world stubbornly clings to its reputation as a kind of boys’ club.

“Being a woman on tour, you’re kind of in a man’s world,” said bluesy alt-rocker ZZ Ward, who returns to Coachella this weekend. “I’m proud of every woman playing this festival.”

The challenge of creating a truly gender diverse lineup at Coachella — an event renowned as an egalitarian oasis of progressive politics, where artists disenfranchised by the mainstream can expect to encounter masses of open-minded listeners — remains considerable. Although the number of women on the roster is up dramatically from 2013, when only 10 female performers or all-women acts carried the bill, to date only a handful of women have headlined the festival.

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Representatives for Goldenvoice, the concert promoter responsible for Coachella, declined to be interviewed for this story. But to hear it from other programmers of North American summer music festivals, when it comes to determining the performance line-up, gender diversity often takes a back seat to other practical concerns.

“It has everything to do with who’s available, who’s on tour, who’s released a new record, where there’s a ton of buzz,” said Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment, which co-produces the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and Kentucky’s Forecastle Festival. “If we feel we’re getting too male-centric, we will try to address that situation. But it’s usually last minute when we look at how this is balancing out. We go for the greatest artists available to play at any given festival.”

One could correctly argue that major festivals, such as Coachella or Bonnaroo, are simply following the market’s lead. The summer festival season, like much of the concert industry, is driven by male performers.

As the Coachella crowd vacates Indio on Monday, Goldenvoice will begin prepping its three-day, country-focused Stagecoach Festival. The top-billed artists include Eric Church, Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean, Hunter Hayes, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line — all men.

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And the Electric Daisy Carnival, a multi-day explosion of dance culture that draws a cumulative attendance of more than 320,000 for its three-day festival in Las Vegas, features more than 100 DJs from the electronic music scene. Yet in recent years the number of women performers could be counted on one or two hands.

Meanwhile, only three of 2013’s Top 10 money-making tours were female-fronted acts, according to Pollstar magazine.

“It’s a matter of who the buzz acts are,” said Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar’s editor in chief. “At Coachella, that’s something they’re looking at, and many of those buzz acts are fronted by women. But I don’t know if they’re going out of their way to book them.”

Valerie Harper signs seals delivers another role

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Valerie Harper is positively radiant these days. There’s a sparkle in her eyes and a genuine warmth in her smile. Why

not? She’s defied the odds.

Early last year, Harper was told she had three months to live. Harper, a non-smoker who had a cancerous tumor removed from her lung in 2009, has a rare form of lung cancer that had spread to areas around her brain.

“I was supposed to be dead a year ago,” said Harper, 74. “We are all terminal, let’s face it.  I did the shock and grief. My husband, Tony, took it terribly. He said, ‘That’s not true. I don’t accept that.’ ”

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Despite the devastating prognosis, “I kept going,” said Harper, who became a TV icon in her Emmy Award-winning turn as the endearing window dresser Rhoda Morgenstern from 1970-78 on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and her spinoff series, “Rhoda.” “I thought it was important.”

And she thought it was important for her fans, whom she calls her “extended” family, to know about what was happening. “People write me letters — not just about this — that are so loving and supportive, for years,” she said. “I know there are a whole bunch of Rhoda rooters out there.”

Harper has kept an extraordinary pace since her diagnosis. She reunited with “MTM” stars Moore, Betty White, Georgia Engel and Cloris Leachman for the finale of TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” last fall. She did “Dancing With the Stars” last season — Harper and her partner, Tristan McManus, were voted off after their fourth dance — and has a quirky guest starring role in Martha Williamson’s (“Touched by an Angel,” “Promised Land”) new series “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” which premieres Easter evening on the Hallmark Channel.

“The message of all of this is don’t give up on your life worrying about death,” Harper said, during a recent interview at the Hallmark Channel offices in Studio City.

Earlier this week, Harper took to the media to clarify a magazine article that quoted her saying, “I’m absolutely cancer free.” Harper isn’t “absolutely” cancer free. But she has responded well to the medicine she has taken for the last year.

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“Every subsequent brain scan is less and less and now my brain scan looks normal,” she said. “It’s great that it’s cleared up in my brain scan, but it could be anywhere the spinal fluid is.”

Long before she was cast as Rhoda, Harper was a professional dancer who appeared in the corps de ballet at the Radio City Music Hall as a teenager as well as in the chorus of such early 1960s musicals as “Wildcat” with Lucille Ball and “Take Me Along” with Jackie Gleason and Robert Morse.

But it had been along time since she danced when she joined “Dancing With the Stars” last fall. “I turned it down many times,” she said. When the series approached Harper after her diagnosis, she told her husband, ‘Why should I do it? I have cancer.’ He said, ‘That’s why you should do it. Think of the people you will inspire.’”

She got letters of thanks, including one from a woman who wrote her, “My mom has cancer and I can’t get her off the couch. But she saw ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and went to dance class the next day.”

Harper and McManus have remained close and even meet for an occasional dinner. “I had such a great time working with Valerie,” said McManus. “I didn’t know much about her beforehand. Generally with the show I try to get to know my partners. I was really surprised at how interested Valerie was in me as well. There was an honesty about it. It was like we were building a relationship as well as a partnership.”

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“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” revolves around four civil servants who become an elite team of lost-mail detectives determined to deliver the undeliverable. The uplifting family show reunites Harper with Williamson, who has been a good friend since the actress did her first “Touched by Angel” episode, as well as series star Eric Mabius (“Ugly Betty”), who worked with Harper in a 2001 TV movie, “Dancing on the Harvest Moon.”

Harper’s Theresa is the group’s new, slightly eccentric supervisor. A legend in the postal service, all she really wants to do is act. Harper performs the life-affirming “No Time at All” from “Pippin” in the first episode and in the second offers sage advice to her staff on not wasting a moment of life as Glinda in an amateur production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

The role was tailored for Harper. “Valerie is somebody who would take a challenge like this and turn it into an opportunity to encourage other people,” Williamson noted. “The first thing she and Tony said to me when I told them about the show was we want to use this show as an opportunity to encourage other people.”

Harper also encourages everyone on the set. “Actors are usually terribly neurotic and worried about what people are thinking of them,” said Mabius. “It’s a breath of fresh air to be around Valerie, who wants everyone around her to succeed. She’s constantly pushing people to be better than they think they can be and making sure everyone has fun.”

Harper plans to keep working as long as she can. She’s mulling two plays “heading toward Broadway — maybe,” said, smiling.  “There is one I really love. We’ll see.”